Outside of César Franck's Symphony in D minor, most nineteenth century French orchestral literature has a tough time getting a break in terms of recordings. Conventional wisdom has it that the vast majority of French Romantic orchestral music is simply inferior to that from Germany, and since it is only played by French orchestras, recorded performances seldom do much justice to what good there is in such music. This has not dissuaded the French Skarbo label from recording three nineteenth century French orchestral works with the Orchestre Symphonique du Mans under José-André Gendille under the rubric Messager -- Fauré -- Franck.
Orchestre Symphonique du Mans is a very good French orchestra, stable in tone with a solid string sound and an attentive wind section. Although Franck's Variations Symphoniques has been recorded a number of times, this appears to be the first recordings of both the Fauré and the Messager. Gabriel Fauré's Allegro Symphonique is an early piece, composed in 1884 as part of Fauré's abandoned Symphony in F major. Here the performance is a little underpowered, never rising to a true allegro. Franck's Variations Symphoniques comes off a little better, and pianist Jean-Pierre Ferey helps bring some sparkle and transparency to a performance that otherwise might have been somewhat mundane. The main event, however, is André Messager's only symphony, composed when he was 22, for which the annotator allows comparisons to the music of Schumann and Mendelssohn. These ears picked out a strong affinity with Beethoven and, to a lesser degree, Franz Liszt. None of these names may sound particularly Gallic, but the approach toward scoring, especially in the treatment of the wind section, is certainly well within the French manner. Messager's Andante movement is quite attractive, as he eschews a conventional development structure in favor of a "rolling landscape" kind of pictorialism. This performance, though, is pedestrian and does not shower the piece in the tender loving care that it probably needs.
While Messager -- Fauré -- Franck may fall short of challenging the conventional wisdom summarized above, it makes for a pleasant hour of listening and fills in a couple of major repertory holes. Fans of Romantic French music will want it, while others may prefer to wait until the second round for the Fauré and the Messager.